Protecting abortion providers

A friend of George Tiller's says the doctor knew something bad was coming. Why couldn't anyone stop it?

Published June 2, 2009 10:13AM (EDT)

When I spoke with National Women's Health Foundation president Susan Hill on Monday, I asked her what she most wanted to see reported in the aftermath of Dr. George Tiller's assassination. She didn't hesitate. "Operation Rescue and all the pro-life groups are now saying that they're nonviolent. I've been doing this 35 years, and I really get infuriated when I hear pro-life people say they're not violent. There's a long history of violence." Clinic bombings and shootings are the most dramatic examples, but Hill also spoke of the harassment aimed at abortion providers and activists, the stalking of their homes and workplaces, the relentless campaigns of intimidation. She herself has survived numerous arson attacks and bomb threats. And as for Dr. Tiller, "They tortured him. They were in Wichita for months, maybe a year, going after his clinic and family. And it wasn't all peaceful."

Recently, Hill says she and other providers have seen an upswing in the harassment. "We started to notice things like strange people from out of town, not the normal protesters. You'd come out of your house, and your car had been messed with. Just little reminders that they can do whatever they want to do on our property, just to be intimidating." About five months ago, a man knocked on her front door at 10:30 p.m. "Are you Susan Hill?" he asked through the door. Hill said yes and asked his name. "Molotov," he told her. "Cute name, are you a pro-lifer?" she replied. "Yeah, I am. I just needed to know where you lived." She watched him leave and later found pictures of him online, "kissing and sleeping with his AK-47. And this is a guy who's at my front door in the dark. " Hill contacted people in law enforcement about the late-night visit and the pictures and got no response, which she says is typical. Such harassment is allowed to continue, she said, because of a combination of "neglect by law enforcement and a game of intimidation that is hard to trace. But they send us messages that we understand."

As Ann Friedman wrote in the American Prospect on Monday, the 1993 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, passed after abortion provider David Gunn was murdered, "specifically banned such acts as blocking clinic doors, trespassing, making violent threats, arson, vandalism, stalking clinic employees, and other forms of violence." But it didn't stop the violence, any more than preexisting laws against most of those acts did. "According to the National Abortion Federation, since 2000 abortion providers have reported 14 arsons, 78 death threats, 66 incidents of assault and battery, 117 anthrax threats, 128 bomb threats, 109 incidents of stalking, 541 acts of vandalism, one bombing, and one attempted murder." That was before Dr. Tiller's murder on Sunday.

Attorney General Eric Holder says he's ordered increased security for some abortion providers around the country and promised to work with local law enforcement in Kansas to fully investigate Tiller's murder. But, Friedman notes, neither he nor Obama mentioned the FACE Act or spoke of reviving the National Task Force on Violence against Health Care Providers established by Janet Reno. And in the meantime, Hill says the real problem lies with local law enforcement around clinics that are well-known targets. "Local law enforcement is guilty. I think they see us as a pain in the ass. We call every time there's some kind of a violation, and they don't like it 'cause they don't want to be bothered." Many providers, she said, have been worried about the routine intimidation turning deadly ever since Obama took office. "We've been telling them for months that something was coming. We always suffered our killings when the Democrats were in power. It wasn't their fault, it's just that the protesters were out of control."

Based on her last conversation with Dr. Tiller, Hill believes he knew that he was in increased danger, but there was nothing he could do to save himself. "We all knew. David Gunn said the same thing [before he was shot]. Everybody knows who's in danger and who isn't. The fact that he knew and couldn't get the help he needed is outrageous."

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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